Changing Signs: Testing How Sound-Symbolism Supports Early Word Learning

AbstractLearning a language involves learning how to map specific forms onto their associated meanings. Such mappings can utilise arbitrariness and non-arbitrariness, yet, our understanding of how these two systems operate at different stages of vocabulary development is still not fully understood. The Sound-Symbolism Bootstrapping Hypothesis (SSBH) proposes that sound-symbolism is essential for word learning to commence, but empirical evidence of exactly how sound-symbolism influences language learning is still sparse. It may be the case that sound-symbolism supports acquisition of categories of meaning, or that it enables acquisition of individualized word meanings. In two Experiments where participants learned form-meaning mappings from either sound-symbolic or arbitrary languages, we demonstrate the changing roles of sound-symbolism and arbitrariness for different vocabulary sizes, showing that sound-symbolism provides an advantage for learning of broad categories, which may then transfer to support learning individual words, whereas an arbitrary language impedes acquisition of categories of sound to meaning.

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